Gleanings in the Fields of Israel

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the corners of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest.Leviticus 19:9

 We came to the land to build and to be built [livnot u’l’hibanot] – Early Zionist Song & Slogan

The Torah created a remarkable framework for caring for the most desperate and hurting people in the ancient world.  At a time when wealth was your land, animals, and crops, the Torah stipulated that a certain part of your fields didn’t in fact belong to you at all, but belonged to people who were poor, needy, and homeless. These are called:

Pe’ahthe corners of the field;

Leket – the gleanings that were dropped by those harvesting the field the first time around, or were neglected to be harvested;

Shichechaparts of the field that had inadvertently been forgotten to be harvested.

Each of these belonged to poor people, who had the right to come and take what belonged to them. The most well-known illustration of this from the Tanach is found in the second chapter of the Book of Ruth, as Ruth herself gathered grain for herself and her widowed mother-in-law Naomi.  This is what social justice meant in the days of the Bible. As later generations of Jews (and Christians) became urban and less agriculturally-based, they took these ideals and transformed them to systems based on money (i.e., the laws of Tzedakah). But it all starts with food.

Leket (“gleanings”) is alive and well today. I spent the morning with other volunteers in fields operated by Leket Israel, harvesting daloriyot (butternut squash).  Leket Israel relies on a handful of employees and hundreds of volunteers to glean vegetables in their fields and then distribute it to hundreds of organizations around the country that get food to people in need. 

Standing in the hot Middle Eastern summer sun this morning, I was thinking of Ruth the Moabite and I was singing.  I was reminded that harvesting these squash was a deeply spiritual exercise, one that the early pioneers of this land understood well when they harvested their fields and sang “Livnot u’L’hibanot: We’ll build and simultaneously build authentic selves, new identities.”

One stereotype of meditation is that it entails sitting crosslegged in silence. But many meditative practices involve mindful, meditative movement. For instance, dance, exercise, flyfishing, hiking – any of this can become focused spiritual disciplines (but they aren’t automatically so. They have to be performed mindfully.) As I look to the ground to identify a ripe squash, break it from its stem, put it in my basket, and walk on to the next one, a begin to develop a rhythm.  Identify, break off, basket, walk on.  Again. Again. The repetition lifts me. The sun is hot; the field goes on forever. And my basket gets more and more full, until it has to get emptied. This continues for two hours, with water breaks.  I get very into it, losing myself to the rhythms of the gleaning.

The two hours fly by incredibly quickly. I look to the bin that I’ve filled with squash and the volunteer coordinator (she was a Temple Executive Director in Arizona where she went by the slave name “Nancy”, before she made Aliyah, came to Leket, and became “Nechama”) looks at my accomplishments.  “You’ve gleaned 400 kilos of squash,” she tells me, “Enough to feed 100 people.”

But the fields are so big, and she explains that most summers she has hundreds of volunteers gleaning it all.  The war this summer has scared many of them away; this morning there are just a few of us.  She says that much of this field will never get gleaned this summer, and the vegetables will probably rot on the vines.  There’s just too many vegetables and not enough hands to harvest them. We’ll do the best we can – but hungry people will be another set of victims of the war.